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Stories of Charlemagne by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

THE BATTLE

[264]

T
HE first that rode forth from the array of the heathen was Ælroth, nephew to King Marsilas. Good were his arms, and his horse was both swift and strong. Grievous were the reproaches that he uttered against the men of France. "Are you come," said he, "ye robbers of France, to fight with us to-day? Know ye not that he who should have helped you has betrayed you? Verily, a fool was your Emperor to leave you in these passes, for the honour of fair France has perished to-day, and the great Charles has lost, as it were, the right arm from his body. So shall Spain have peace at last."

Roland heard these words with great grief in his heart. He spurred his steed with spurs of gold, and smote the heathen warrior with all his might. He brake his shield in twain, and [265] severed the mail of his hauberk, and clave his body into two parts. A mighty stroke it was, and Roland cried aloud as he dealt it, "Learn now, thou wretch, that King Charles knows well what he does. He loves not treason or traitors. It was well done of him to leave us in these passes. France shall have no loss of honour this day. Strike, men of France, strike! The first blood is for us; these dogs of heathen shall suffer for their misdeeds."

Then came forth a Duke from the host of the Saracens, brother to King Marsilas, Fausseron by name. Never was a man on the earth more insolent and villainous. When he saw that his nephew was dead it cut him to the heart. He rushed out of the crowd, and, shouting out the battle-cry of the heathen, hurled himself on the ranks of France. "Fair France," said he, "shall lose her honour this day." Great was the rage of Oliver when he heard these mischievous words. He struck his spurs of gold into his charger's flanks, and smote Fausseron with a right knightly blow. His shield he shore in twain, and burst the links of his hauberk, and hurled him dead from his saddle. "Lie there," he said. "Who cares for thy threats, thou coward!" And, turning to the Frenchmen, he cried, "Strike, friends, strike! [266] and we shall conquer the enemy. Mountjoy! 'Tis the King's own battle-cry!"

Then came forth another King, Corsablis by name. From the distant land of Barbary he came. He cried to his fellows in the army of the heathen, "Easily can we bear up the battle. Few are these Frenchmen, and of no account. Not a man of them shall escape, nor shall Charles their King help them. Verily the day has come for them to die." Turpin the Archbishop heard him—not one was there in all the heathen host whom Turpin more hated—and charged him, spear in hand, and bore him dead to the ground.

Full many of the heathen warriors fell that day. Not one of the Twelve Peers of France but slew his man. But of all none bare himself so valiantly as Roland. Many a blow did he deal to the enemy with his mighty spear, and when the spear was shivered in his hand, fifteen warriors having fallen before it, then he seized his good sword Durendal, and smote man after man to the ground. Red was he with the blood of his enemies. Red was his hauberk, red his arms, red his shoulders, aye, and the neck of his horse. Not one of the Twelve lingered in the rear, or was slow to strike, but Count Roland was the bravest of [267] the brave. "Well done, Sons of France!" cried Turpin the Archbishop, when he saw them lay on in such sort.

Next to Roland for valour and hardihood came Oliver, his companion. Many a heathen warrior did he slay, till at last his spear was shivered in his hand. "What are you doing, comrade?" cried Roland, when he was aware of the mishap. "A man wants no staff in such a battle as this. 'Tis the steel and nothing else that he must have. Where is your sword Hautclere, with its hilt of gold and its pommel of crystal?" "On my word," said Oliver. "I have not had time to draw it; I was so busy with striking." But as he spake he drew the good sword from its scabbard, and smote a heathen knight, Justin of the Iron Valley. A mighty blow it was, cleaving the man in twain down to his saddle—aye, and the saddle itself with its adorning of gold and jewels, and the very backbone also of the steed whereon he rode, so that horse and man fell dead together on the plains. "Well done!" cried Roland; "you are a true brother of mine. 'Tis such strokes as this that makes the Emperor love us."

Nevertheless, for all the valour of Roland and his fellows the battle went hardly with the [268] men of France. Many lances were shivered, many flags torn, and many gallant youths cut off in their prime. Never more would they see mother and wife. It was an ill deed that the traitor Ganelon wrought when he sold his fellows to King Marsilas!

And now there befell a new trouble. King Almaris, with a great host of heathen, coming by an unknown way, fell upon the rear of the host where there was another pass. Fiercely did the noble Walter that kept the same charge the new-comers, but they overpowered him and his followers. He was wounded with several lances, and four times did he swoon, so that at the last he was constrained to leave the field of battle, that he might call the Count Roland to his aid. But small was the aid which Roland could give him or any one. Valiantly he held up the battle, and with him Oliver, and Turpin the Archbishop, and others also; but the lines of the men of France were broken, and their armour thrust through, and their spears shivered, and their flags trodden in the dust. For all this they made such slaughter among the heathen that King Almaris, who led the armies of the enemy, scarcely could win back his way to his own people, wounded in four places and sorely spent. A right good [269] warrior was he; had he but been a Christian but few had matched him in battle!

He came to King Marsilas, where he stood among his princes, and fell at his feet; for indeed there was no strength left in him. "To horse!" he cried, "my lord, to horse! You will find the men of France worn out with the slaughter that they have wrought among us. Their spears are shivered and their swords broken; a full half of them are dead, and they that are left have no strength remaining in them. It will cost you but little to take vengeance for the multitudes whom they have slain. Believe me, my lord, these Frenchmen are ready to be conquered."

Then King Marsilas bade his host advance. A mighty army it was, divided into twenty columns, and the trumpets sounded the charge. Never was heard such a din in the land! "Oliver, my comrade," said Roland, when he heard it, "this traitor Ganelon has sworn our death. But if he compass it, surely our King will take a terrible vengeance. But as for us, we must do our duty as good knights, for verily this battle will be no child's play. Strike thou with thy sword Hautclere, and I will strike with my sword Durendal. Many a time have we wielded them side by side; many a [270] victory have we won with them. Verily if we fall this day, these pagans shall not despise us."

The Archbishop, on his part, spake words of comfort to his people. "Let no one think of flight," he said; "never shall these heathen make songs upon us. 'Tis better far to die in battle. And if we die, as well may be, there is this of which I can assure you: the gates of Paradise shall be open to you. To-morrow, if so it be, you shall have a place among the saints." Then the men of France took fresh courage and made themselves ready for the battle.

King Marsilas said to his people, "Listen to me. This Roland is a great warrior; it will be no easy thing to conquer him. One battle we have fought against him and not prevailed; now will we fight another; if need be, and you will follow me, we will fight even a third. Of these twenty columns ten shall set themselves in array against the men of France, and ten shall remain with me. As I live, before this day is over, the power of King Charles shall be broken." So saying he gave a banner, richly embroidered, to the Emir Grandoigne; "Lead your men against the French," said he; "this shall be your warrant from me."

So the King abode where he was on the [271] hilltop, but Grandoigne descended into the plain, having his banner carried before him. "To horse!" he cried, and the trumpets sounded, and the host moved on to the battle. And the French cried when they saw it, "Now what shall we do? Curses on this traitor Ganelon, who has sold us to the heathen!" But Turpin the Archbishop bade them be of good courage. "Bear you as men!" said he, "and God shall give you the crown of glory in Paradise. Only know that into Paradise a coward can in nowise come." "So be it," said the men of France, "we are few indeed, but we will not fail of our duty."

The first to charge from out of the ranks of the heathen was Chimborin, the same that had given to Ganelon the helmet with the great carbuncle on the vizor. His horse, Barbemouche by name, was swifter than a sparrow-hawk or a swallow. He rode at full speed, levelling his lance at Engelier the Gascon, and smote him through shield and hauberk so stoutly that the spear stood out of his body on the other side. "These French-men are easy to conquer," he cried. "Strike, comrades, strike, and break their rank!" But all the Frenchmen cried out, "This is a grievous thing that so brave a warrior should be slain!" [272] Said Roland to Oliver, "Comrade, see Engelier the Gascon is slain; we had no braver knight in the host." "God grant that I may avenge him," answered Oliver, and struck spurs into his horse. In his hand was his trusty sword Hautclere, its blade red with blood. Therewith he smote Chimborin so mighty a blow that he slew both man and horse. Next he slew the Duke Alphais. Eight other Arab warriors he struck down from their saddles, and in such sort they would never join in the battle any more. "My comrade is in a goodly rage," cried Roland; "these are the blows that make King Charles love us. Strike, men of France, strike and cease not!"

The next that rode forth was the Emir Valdabrun, the same that had given to Ganelon the sword. He was a great ruler of the sea. Four hundred ships he had, and there was not a sailor but complained of his robberies. The same had taken by treachery, and slain the Patriarch of Antioch with the sword. This man smote Duke Samson, breaking with his spear both shield and hauberk, and so did him to death. "So shall all these wretches perish," he cried. And the men of France were sorely dismayed. [273] When Roland saw that the Duke Samson was dead, he rode fiercely at Valdabrun, and smote him so mightily with his great sword Durendal that he clave in twain helmet, head, and body, and saddle, and the very backbone of the horse, so that both fell dead together, both man and horse.

After this Malquidant, son of King Malquid of Africa slew Ansol. Him the Archbishop speedily avenged. Never priest that sang mass was so sturdy a warrior as he. With one blow of his good Toledo sword he slew the African. "He smites sore, does the Arch-bishop!" cried all the men of France when they saw the deed.

After this Grandoigne who was the leader of the host of heathen entered the battle. Five knights, valiant men of war all of them, he slew one after the other, so that the men of France cried, "How fast they fall, these champions of ours!"

Roland heard the cry, and it went near to break his heart, so great was his wrath. He rode straight at Grandoigne, and these two met in the middle space between the hosts. Among the heathen no man was braver or better at arms than Grandoigne, but he was no match for Roland. They had scarce met in [274] the shock of battle when Roland with one mighty blow cleft him to his saddle, aye, and slew the horse on which he rode. Many other valiant deeds he wrought that day, nor did Oliver lag behind, nor Turpin the Archbishop, riding on the famous horse which he took from the King of Denmark. But though these and others also bore themselves right bravely, such was the multitude of the Saracens that in the end it carried all before it. Four times did the host of the Saracens advance, four times did the Frenchmen beat it back. But when it advanced for the fifth time, things went ill for the Christians. Great was the price at which they sold their lives; but scarcely threescore were left.


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